“I am not a racist”​ is not the same as “there is no racism”​

(This is a slightly-edited repost of an essay I originally posted on LinkedIn in 2020.)

For the longest time, I thought about racism in an individual context: if I didn’t express racist feelings, or see them expressed, it was hard to imagine that “racism” was widespread, or if it was real, that it was my responsibility to address it.

But “I am not racist” can be true and “racism is widespread and a problem” can also be true. As my former co-worker Terri Burns so eloquently put in the BLCK.VC event in 2020, systems in the US aren’t broken, they are working as intended. I, as a white person, have benefited from racist systems. For example: 

When my Grandparents bought their first house in the early 1940s, they were beneficiaries of relaxed lending practices made possible by the National Housing Act of 1934. A precursor to the Fair Housing Act of the 60s, the NHA established a practice that would later become known as redlining – making it possible for White home buyers to secure mortgages, excluding Black Americans from doing the same. For decades.

The single biggest contributor to generational wealth in America? Home ownership. By explicitly enabling White Americans like my Grandparents to buy homes – starting in the 30s and 40s and carrying through to the 80s – the federal housing system significantly contributed to the disparity in net worth between Black families and White families (today, that gap is roughly 10x).

When Americans like my Grandfather returned from WWII, Congress created the GI Bill to help soldiers afford college (second biggest contributor to a family’s net worth? A college education!) and buy homes. To get it passed into law, the Bill’s sponsors made concessions to Southern politicians that ensured many of the GI Bill’s benefits would be unavailable to Black soldiers. The result? White soldiers saw their future earnings grow and were able to buy homes at rates that dwarfed those of their fellow Black veterans, accelerating the wealth gap even as the Civil Rights era appeared to create new opportunities for Black Americans.

Sticking with education: K-12 schools in the U.S. are disproportionately funded by local property taxes, which itself only serves to compound disparities between neighborhoods. Those same neighborhoods that had previously been punished through redlining today face dramatically lower school funding – which only serves to widen the achievement gap between wealthy (often White) and poor (often Black) communities. And when those students graduate from high school and apply to college, they’re penalized a second time, as their admission to college is almost always influenced by their standardized test scores – which reveal ongoing, systemic racial gaps between White and Black students.

Richard Nixon’s “law and order” strategy in the 70s, Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs in the 80s, and Bill Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy in the 90s: all together, by 2010 the United States incarcerated a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of Apartheid. With less than 5% of the world’s population, we had 25% of the world’s prisoners. Not only had we denied economic opportunity through housing and education policy for generations, we then put nearly 8% of Black Americans under criminal supervision – limiting their eligibility for housing, food, and job assistance, among many others. Those under criminal supervision also lose their right to vote – depending on the state, some convicted of a felony lose their right to vote permanently. Denied access to opportunity, denied assistance that might help them get back on their feet – even after paying their debt to society – these citizens are then denied representation by prohibiting them for voting for their elected officials.

None of this addresses the ongoing, post-Reconstruction campaign of racial terror carried out by Whites towards Blacks, but it must be mentioned: while these policies and systems were denying fundamental rights to Black Americans, between 1877 and 1950, over 4,000 Black Americans were lynched by Whites. Of all lynchings carried out after 1900, just 1% of those murderers were convicted of a crimeMany lynchings were announced in advance. In newspapers. Carried out in public, before crowds of hundreds or thousands of White Americans.

It was only as I came to acknowledge these tragic, deeply uncomfortable facts, and accepted that I had – directly or otherwise – benefited from them, that I grew motivated to change them. I am not a racist, but there is racism. Facing this reality – understanding the deep, fundamental nature of the systemic barriers we as a nation have placed over generations, some of which, like mass incarceration, played out in my lifetime – is why I decided to commit more of my own time to (a) acknowledging and calling attention to injustices when I see them, (b) advocating for change with elected officials, and (c) investing time and money with organizations actively working to dismantle these systems.

Black lives matter.

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